On February 23, 2008, a major NASA mission – the MARS Exploration Rovers (or MERs) – were led for the first time by a women-only team. Dr. Barbara Cohen of the Marshall Space Flight Center was the leader of that team.
In a 2012 interview, Cohen stated that she, “wasn’t really that interested in science growing up, but … was always that annoying overachiever in school because [she] enjoyed learning.” In secondary school, she was engaged in the program that would become Odyssey of the Mind, which involved creatively solving complex problems and helped her become a problem solver and critical thinker, which she said, “are some of the most important skills in science.” She was inspired by watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and after having an “amazing” chemistry class in high school, decided to pursue science as a career.
In her undergraduate work in geology at the University of New York at Stony Brook, Cohen mapped lineaments (faults) on Europa – a task she described as tedious – but one that opened her eyes to the detailed geography of other worlds. This led Cohen to pursuing her PhD in Planetary Science, which she completed in 2000 from the University of Arizona, where she studied lunar meteorites. In 2003, she joined the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico, continuing her graduate work.
In 2005, she became a member of the Science Team for the MERs, examining the Rovers’ findings on Martian impact products. She became a full-time member of NASA in 2007 where she filled any operational role she was asked to play on the MERs team. She uses her scientific knowledge and MERs experience to support human exploration planning for the Moon for the Constellation program, including the Lunar Precursor Robotics Program, is helping design the MSFC Noble Gas Research Laboratory (MNGRL) to create detailed time histories of rocks and meteorites, and has participated in the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET). Due to her contributions, asteroid 1981 EB23 was renamed 6816 Barbcohen in 2010.
Written by Nicole Hutchison